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Rosemary Shirley curates our national obsession with the countryside

3 April 2017

New exhibition ‘Creating the Countryside’ at Compton Verney explores artistic and popular visions of the rural

Rosemary Shirley (Acting Director of Studies, Department of Art) has celebrated the launch of Creating the Countryside, which she curated in collaboration with Verity Elson.

After being anticipated as one of the ‘must-see shows of 2017’ by ArtFund, Creating the Countryside previewed on 18 March, in the complimentary surroundings of Compton Verney – a country house that sits within 120 acres of parkland.

The exhibition has attracted attention from The Guardian and The Telegraph, where it was described as ‘an intriguing look at what the “countryside” means to the British.’

High art, propaganda and everyday items 

In curating the exhibition, Rosemary and Verity have bought together works by key landscape artists such as Blake, Constable and Turner, works of modern British art and contemporary pieces. However, Creating the Countryside isn’t only concerned with High Art, as Rosemary explains:

‘Art works are entered into dialogue with an extensive range of visual cultures which populate everyday life now and in the past. For instance, John Newbould’s iconic wartime recruitment posters of 1942-4 and rural themed video games, a set of exquisitely made corn dollies, and a range of national park themed air fresheners.

We assert that from High Art to propaganda, garden centres to air fresheners, and contemporary art to computer games, all these things form a constellation of powerful images and ideas, that contribute to our understandings of the rural.'

An intensified attraction to the rural 

According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, only 17% of the UK population lived in areas that could be classed as rural in 2016, with more and more people choosing to live in towns and cities. However, Rosemary argues that this has ‘only intensified the cultural importance of the countryside.'

'Representations of the rural are everywhere right now, from Countryfile – one of the most popular programmes on the BBC, to the Nature Writing filling the selves of Waterstones, to brands like Kath Kidston which draw on nostalgic floral designs.

Every time we choose an organic chicken over a cheaper alternative or a fabric conditioner that claims to smell like a spring meadow, we are acting upon political, economic and imaginative connections to the idea of countryside. But where have these ideas and associations come from and what makes them so pervasive in contemporary society? These are the questions that this exhibition aims to explore.’

From written words to gallery walls 

Rosemary has previously tackled issues of perceptions of the rural and visions of the countryside in her research, resulting in publications such as ‘Rural Modernity, Everyday Life and Visual Culture’ which was published in 2015.

‘It’s amazing to see my research on art and the British countryside lifted off the page and into the gallery space,’ she commented. ‘Collaborating with curator Verity Elson has generated so many new connections between artists and artworks, enabling us to bring different ideas about representation of the rural to this show.

Working with an organisation like Compton Verney has made it possible to bring together an astonishing selection of works from national collections and also to commission new pieces by contemporary artists. Seeing it all coming together after almost two years of planning is very satisfying.’

Creating the Countryside runs at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park until 18 June 2017.

You can find out more about Rosemary Shirley’s work and projects on her staff profile page.